If the National Republican Congressional Committee is any guide, Republicans seeking to unseat Democrats in the U.S. House see promise in linking them to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who has shepherded much of the Obama administration’s legislation through the House.
The committee didn’t feature Texas U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, among 10 Pelosi "puppets" displayed on its website. But Bryan Underwood, the Republican running against Cuellar, recently called him a "Pelosi pawn."
"Ninety-six percent of last session, he voted with Nancy Pelosi," Underwood said June 12 at the Republican Party of Texas convention.
When we followed up with Underwood’s campaign, consultant John Pritchett pointed us to an online Washington Post database of lawmakers’ voting histories showing that Cuellar voted with Democrats 96 percent of the time in 2009-10.
"She’s the leader of the party, she’s the speaker of the party, she is the party," Pritchett said.
Fair enough? Well, we asked Pritchett about Underwood’s reference to "last session" in his convention remark. In the parlance of Washington, that would ordinarily mean the session before the current one, which began Jan. 5, 2010. However, Pritchett said that Underwood meant the entire period the current House membership — the 111th Congress — has been voting, from January 2009 through this month.
Setting aside for a moment Cuellar’s votes in step with his party, we wondered how he’s personally aligned with Pelosi.
A caveat: Any check of the vote-for-vote ratio between Cuellar and the speaker wouldn’t reflect Cuellar’s full voting history. That’s because Pelosi doesn’t vote that often. The House Speaker’s primary role is to preside over the 435-member House, generally voting only when it would make a difference in the legislation’s outcome. Sean Theriault, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, put it like this: "If not voting makes them look like they have the entire House’s interest at heart, all the better."
From early 2009 through May 28, 2010, Pelosi voted 71 times, while Cuellar voted 1,323 times, according to the database. And according to the database, Pelosi and Cuellar both voted 48 times from Jan. 6, 2009 to Dec. 24, 2009 with Cuellar voting with Republicans five times and lining up with Pelosi 43 times, compiling an 89.5-percent I’m-with-her rate. Six months into the 2010 session, Pelosi has voted 23 times, according to the database, with Cuellar voting like her all 23 times. Republicans voted with them thrice.
When did Cuellar stray from Pelosi’s side in 2009? He voted for Rep. Bart Stupak’s amendment that put restrictions on abortions available in government-run health care plans. He voted for Rep. Walt Minnick’s amendment that would have scrapped certain consumer protections proposed in financial overhaul legislation. He voted for a bill to disapprove the obligation to purchase troubled assets under the stimulus act. And he voted against two appropriation bills; Cuellar is the only Texan in the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally-conservative Democrats.
Colin Strother, a spokesman for Cuellar’s campaign, pointed out that the 96 percent that Underwood cites includes a raft of votes for minor items, such as a vote to congratulate the New Orleans Saints for winning the Super Bowl.
Finally, we sought other measures of Cuellar’s vote history.
One measure is how many times he’s voted in step with President Barack Obama when he’s clearly indicated his preferences — 92 percent of his votes deferred to Obama last session, according to Congressional Quarterly. Separately, the respected National Journal reviewed 97 key roll-call votes in 2009, ultimately classing Cuellar as a "centrist." Based on those selected votes, the Journal rated him the 215th most liberal member of the House, which also makes him the 216th most conservative. That hits the median position in the center exactly.
Summing up: Underwood misspoke when he said "last session" in referring to votes that took place over the last House session (2009) as well as the current one (2010). He also wasn’t as precise as he could have been if he intended delegates to think he was talking about Cuellar lock-stepping with fellow Democrats, rather than just Speaker Pelosi.
Still, Cuellar tends to vote nearly all the time with her — and with his party. Cuellar voted nearly 90 percent of the time just like Pelosi last session and this session, he voted just like her on the 23 occasions they’ve both voted. Since January 2009, Cuellar has voted 96 percent of the time in alignment with most fellow Democrats.
We rate Underwood’s statement as Mostly True.